A Christian bakery has been found guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake bearing the slogan “support gay marriage”. The ruling was handed down by District Judge Isobel Brownlie following three days of evidence at Belfast County Court, Northern Ireland, in March.
Gay rights activist Gareth Lee placed the order for the cake, which also featured Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie with Ashers Baking Company, which employs 80 people across nine branches and delivers across the UK and Ireland.
Founder and owner Karen McArthur, a born-again Christian, at first accepted the order, but two days later phoned Mr Lee to inform him that the company would not be able to fulfil the order. He subsequently had the cake made by another company.
During the evidence sessions, Mr Lee told the court that the McArthur’s refusal to make the cake had left him feeling like a lesser person. “I wasn’t worthy of service because they were Christian. That was the message that struck me. It made me feel not worthy, like I’m a lesser person and to me that is wrong,” he said.
The case was brought on behalf of Mr Lee by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with the region’s anti-discrimination laws.
Mrs McArthur told the court that she had initially taken the order to avoid embarrassment or confrontation, but knew that her company would not be able to complete it. The family, who are all devout Christians, discussed how to proceed amongst themselves before deciding to decline the order. They told the judge they “could not stand before God” and produce a cake which declared support for same sex marriage.
Speaking ahead of the judgement, Ashers’ General Manager Daniel McArthur said: “Our faith is very important to us; it determines how we live, how we bring up our children, how we run our business, how we meet and how we engage with other people in society, so yes we can’t leave it out whenever we go to work in the morning.
“It’s been a difficult and exhausting time for us as a family but God has been faithful to us. And He has given us the strength to deal with this, and we know and trust in Him that going forward He will continue to give us His strength.”
Ashers was supported by The Christian Institute which funded their defence.
The Institute’s Deputy Director Simon Calvert said: “The McArthurs, like countless other Christian business owners across the country, simply want to live and work in accordance with their Christian beliefs – beliefs which have long had a positive influence on Western culture and history.”
The case has prompted calls for a “conscience clause” to be included in equality legislation. Sinn Fein has vowed to veto the clause.
UPDATE: The McArthur family and the Christian Institute have both spoken of their disappointment over the ruling.
Ashers’ General Manager Daniel McArthur has said:
“We’ve said from the start that our issue was with the message on the cake, not the customer and we didn’t know what the sexual orientation of Mr Lee was, and it wasn’t relevant either. We’ve always been happy to serve any customers that come into our shops.
“The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign no matter how much they disagree with it. Or as the Equality Commission has suggested, they should perhaps just close down, and that can’t be right.
“But we won’t be closing down, we certainly don’t think we’ve done anything wrong and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options for appeal.
“The loss of the case and the possibility of a financial penalty is disappointing but that is a small burden to bear as the case has provided us with an opportunity through which we have been able to speak about our faith and our beliefs. And for that we give thanks to the Lord.”
Institute’s Deputy Director Simon Calvert has said: “We are extremely disappointed at today’s ruling against the McArthur family and Ashers Baking Company. It will also sadden all those who value freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
“Judge Brownlie recognised that there were competing rights in this case but has favoured sexual orientation over religious belief.
“We are equally baffled by the court’s decision to uphold the Equality Commission’s claim of political discrimination. This was a late addition to the case and the ruling suggests all business owners now have to be willing to promote any political cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it, or – as the Equality Commission has suggested – close down.
“It appears that we are all now required by law to support same-sex marriage. What next? Will the Muslim printer now be obliged to print cartoons of Mohammed? Will the lesbian T-shirt printer now be forced to print T-shirts promoting traditional marriage? We should all consider the real concern and confusion that will result from this ruling.”